Michel Starting to Look Right at Home
By Kevin Duffy
FOXBORO -- Early in Sunday’s practice, Tom Brady rolled to his right, dumped off a short screen pass to Sony Michel, and watched the talented Patriots rookie do the rest.
Michel’s instincts and agility helped him evade the initial wave of defenders. He bounced outside, accelerating quickly, and the crowd of thousands cheered as Michel glided down the sideline.
The sequence looked so natural, like something Patriots fans will become accustomed to seeing on Sundays. Except, of course, for one part: Michel, who is perhaps the most explosive playmaker in New England’s loaded backfield, is still stuck with the odd assignment of the No. 51 jersey.
Asked about earning a “real” number, Michel interrupted the question and deadpanned, “This is my real number.”
“This is what they gave me, this is what I’m rolling with,” Michel said.
The opening week of training camp has been a mixed bag for Michel. He’s part of a deep rotation of backs -- Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden, and Mike Gillislee (who missed Sunday’s practice but is expected to return Monday) have all received reps.
Michel, though, clearly possesses the most big-play potential of anyone in the backfield. That’s why the Patriots were willing to take him at the end of the first round this past April. Prior to the selection, the Pats had gone 12 straight drafts without a first-round running back (and only once in that span did they select a back in the second round -- Shane Vereen in 2011).
Michel scored 16 rushing touchdowns as a senior at Georgia. Seven of them came from 35 yards or farther. In the Rose Bowl alone, Michel ripped off runs of 75, 38, 27, and 20 yards, racing through a gassed Oklahoma secondary. It’s a new level for Michel this season, but there’s no question he can create huge plays for the Patriots offense.
As efficient as the New England running game was a year ago, it lacked a home-run element. Dion Lewis was excellent at turning a 2-yard run into an 8-yard carry, but only two of his 180 rushing attempts went for longer than 25 yards. Likewise, Burkhead, Gillislee, and White combined for 211 carries in the regular season. Just one of those rushing attempts resulted in a gain of more than 25 yards.
Enter Michel, who drew pre-draft comparisons to the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara.
“He’s a great kid,” Burkhead said. “Coming in, he’s got a lot of talent. It’s been great to work with him. He’s a humble kid, not coming in with a lot of rah-rah talking.”
This is true, at least based on Michel’s first interview of training camp.
When asked about becoming the next in a long line of great Georgia running backs, Michel deflected the praise.
“I wouldn’t say I was a ‘great’ at Georgia,” said Michel, who averaged 7.9 yards per carry as a senior. “But Georgia has some great backs. It’s pretty cool to see guys come out of there. The Patriots have some great backs, too. I’m actually getting a chance to learn from one of them, James White and many more -- Brandon, Rex.”
And what has he learned from White?
“When you make a mistake, try not to make that mistake again, but just keep moving forward,” Michel said.
Michel had a rookie moment on Saturday, when he coasted into the secondary during 11-on-11s. Safety Damarius Travis bumped into Michel, and the ball unexpectedly popped loose. Travis didn’t even need to make contact with the ball to force the fumble.
To date, this is the one knock on Michel. He fumbled nearly twice as often as other elite running back prospects in his draft class. Although he improved on the issue throughout his college career -- two fumbles on 165 touches as a senior -- it remains an area of emphasis.
There are few weaknesses in his game. He was hailed as one of the top pass-protecting backs in his class. He showcased power in Saturday’s practice, fighting through initial contact behind the line of scrimmage to deliver an impressive 1-yard touchdown run. He has the size, speed, vision, and balance to become a dynamic weapon in New England.
He just needs the snaps, and maybe a new jersey number.